One of the positive outcomes of the Church’s focus on the New Evangelization has been a greater awareness of the kerygma, or the foundational proclamation of the Gospel. As a whole, we’re getting smarter about what the kerygma is and, more importantly, about working it into our evangelization efforts with increasing intentionality.
When we talk about the kerygma, I think that there are three aspects of it that we need to understand. In the first place, there is the message that makes up the content of the kerygmatic proclamation. Second, this proclamation is intended to produce a particular response on the part of the hearer. Finally, when this message is met with its intended response, we can expect to see certain fruits in that person’s life.
So a complete understanding of the kerygma includes these three things: message, response, and fruits. Of these three, the message and the response of the kerygma have been more widely discussed. Here, I want to focus on the fruits of the kerygma and how that impacts the totality of our ministry efforts.
MESSAGE AND RESPONSE
Let me briefly summarize the message of the kerygma and its intended response. The core message of the Gospel can be expressed in many ways, and in fact it often must be expressed in many different ways before it is embraced. Whenever I present this core message to others, I like to present it in the most simple, baldest form I can and then elaborate based on the situation I am in. For me, this most simplified form looks something like this:
- There is a problem that every human person carries that we are completely incapable of fixing by our own means.
- The root of this problem is that we are separated from God.
- God’s own divine Son took on our human nature so that he could repair our connection with God.
- By receiving what Jesus did for us through faith, we are restored to true communion with God and empowered to live out a new way of life defined by our relationship with God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The response that this message invites is what we call conversion (or sometimes, for more specificity, initial conversion). “Conversion means accepting, by a personal decision, the saving sovereignty of Christ and becoming his disciple” (John Paul II, Redemptoris missio). It entails acknowledging one’s utter dependence on the saving work of Jesus to be put right with God, receiving that gift of salvation through an explicit act of faith, and entering into a covenental relationship with God.
All of this deserves more unpacking, but I want to shift my focus now to discussing the fruits that we should expect when the kerygmatic message has been met with the response of conversion.
MESSAGE + RESPONSE = FRUITS
Conversion is a matter of the heart. Because of this, mere external actions are not always an accurate gauge of whether genuine conversion has taken hold in someone’s life. Instead, we look to the presence or absence of the fruits of conversion. Here I am speaking of the relatively immediate fruits of initial conversion, the foundational heart dispositions that we should expect to fall into place if genuine conversion is present. These fruits sometimes need time to emerge, but in general we can expect that to look more like months than years. To the extent that these fruits are missing, we can conclude that there is something defective in the way the message was presented, the way it was understood, or in the response of the person.
What are these fruits that we should expect to see? St. Augustine famously wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.” This interior restlessness is the by-product, the bad fruit of our condition of being separated from God. It provokes us to various forms of striving – the restless heart knows that something is wrong and obsesses over the question, “What must I do to quench this restlessness?”
But when connection with God is restored through conversion and the grace made available through Jesus, the person should experience the quelling of this restlessness. It means an end to the striving that the restless heart provokes. The good fruit of conversion is rest for the restless heart.
Let’s draw out the contrast between these two even more by analyzing different forms of striving and the disposition of the heart at rest in these areas:
|RESTLESS HEART||HEART AT REST|
|Strives for significance. Seeks sense of purpose and value by the contribution it makes to the world. Even if significance is achieved, the restless heart is haunted by the fear of losing it.||Gains sense of significance from intimate knowledge of being personally loved by God apart from any achievements. Constancy of the love of God becomes unwavering ground of significance.|
|Strives for self-definition. Uncomfortable in its own skin. Personal identity becomes a project of inventing oneself, creating one’s own identity.||Derives sense of identity from being created unique and irreplaceable by God. Enjoys the process of discovering and developing the deposit of glory God has implanted in it.|
|Strives for redemption. Believes it must atone for past wrongdoing by balancing the scales with good deeds, or by undergoing punishment in the form of suffering or sacrifice.||Believes in the sufficiency of the Cross of Jesus as expiation for our sins and lives as one who is born anew with a clean slate, as a new creation in Christ.|
|Strives for approval. Obsesses over the opinion of others and how they will react when making decisions.||Stands approved by God as a beloved son/daughter. Entrusts itself to God’s guidance and makes discernment of His providential will the primary grounding for decision-making.|
|Strives for righteousness. Relies on adherence to a moral code (which can be either externally imposed or internal to the person) to validate* its own existence. Failures and shortcomings produce personal crises and the experience of shame.
* I am indebted to Tim Keller’s message “Justified by Faith” for this insight.
|Justified by faith, it receives the righteousness of Christ as its very own. Stands confidently before God as fully righteous and an heir to the promises of God. Does not lose confidence even in the midst of moral failures because of the ready availability of grace.|
Striving can show up in other ways, but by now we should be getting a pretty good sense for the impact of the kerygma and the fruit of rest that it produces in the human heart. To the extent that a person remains in a state of striving and does not experience rest in the heart – to that extent, they have not yet internalized the kerygma.
WHY IS THIS SO IMPORTANT?
I must repeat again that the purpose of the kerygma is to lay the foundation of initial conversion in a Christian’s life. The fruits of this initial conversion are not reserved to those who have labored through a lifetime of devotion to God. They form the basis on which all other Christian activity, all other growth springs forth. Just like any other house or skyscraper, the stability of the Christian “edifice” is dependent on how firmly this foundation has been laid.
But this foundation is also not something that we ever really move past. In a remarkable series of sermons on the mission and vision of his church, Pastor Tim Keller recently had this to say when speaking on “The Centrality of the Gospel” (here, it is fair to say that “kerygma” and “Gospel” can be used interchangeably):
People tend to think of the Gospel as the first principles, the elementary principles. “The Gospel, sure. Jesus died for your sins. The Gospel is for non-believers who want to become believers. It’s for new Christians who don’t know the basics. But us seasoned and mature people, we need to get on to more advanced things.” But [on the contrary] there are some beliefs that we call worldview. A worldview is a foundational belief where you see everything else through those beliefs. Those beliefs affect the way that you look at everything else. The Gospel is like that. The Gospel is not like the first two or three steps and then we go on to something else. It’s not the A-B-C’s of the Christian life, it’s the A to Z.
This, in fact, mirrors a point that Pope Francis was making in Evangelii Gaudium when he wrote:
This first proclamation [kerygma] is called “first” not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment… We must not think that in catechesis the kerygma gives way to a supposedly more “solid” formation. Nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation. All Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma, which is reflected in and constantly illumines the work of catechesis, thereby enabling us to understand more fully the significance of every subject which the latter treats [emphases added].
When Pope Francis says that we must “announce [the kerygma] one way or another throughout the process of catechesis,” I imagine it like tying a thread from every subject of teaching and preaching back to that original proclamation – message, response, and fruits. If we are unable connect the dots back to the kerygma, then chances are we are not presenting an authentically Christian worldview.
Take, for instance, the subject of works done in the name of Jesus. Someone who has not fully internalized the kerygma will strive to earn God’s approval through good deeds. By contrast, the implications of the kerygma (proclaimed, received, and bearing fruit) means that as Christians, “We work from approval, not for approval,” to borrow a line from Pastor Bill Johnson. We who are baptized into Christ receive the same declaration over us that Jesus received at his baptism: “This is my beloved son (daughter), in whom I am well pleased.” To work from approval rather than for approval is the difference between fearfully trying to appease a demanding taskmaster-God, versus joyfully working alongside a loving Father who has no need of our assistance and yet is pleased to involve us in His work.
This is but one example of why understanding the fruits of the kerygma makes a significant difference for the Christian life and for ministry. The fruits are the best measure for determining whether the kergyma has truly been internalized.
I’d love to hear from you! In what ways has Jesus quieted the restlessness of your heart? Share a little of your story in the comments section to encourage other readers that God can do the same for them!